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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2002

City ponders charging Edison for storm costs

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo officials, regrouping after a wind and ice storm last week that caused widespread power outages are beginning to ask some tough questions.

Ted Mastroianni, interim chief operating officer for Mayor Jack Ford, said he thinks Toledo Edison responded appropriately to an unusually severe storm.

But he said the city may decide to seek reimbursement for the overtime costs of its crews. Workers in the utilities, public service, fire, police, and forestry departments put in 16-hour shifts guarding downed power lines and removing tree limbs and debris so FirstEnergy repair crews could do their job.

However, city Councilman Peter Gerken, who chairs the utilities committee, said he wants to hold a hearing this month on Edison's response to the power outages.

“I think the amount of time people had to wait for power is unacceptable,” Mr. Gerken said.

Some people went without electricity for five days. At its worst, 106,000 Toledo Edison customers were in the dark and the cold.

“That subject [of reimbursement] was brought up” at a directors' meeting yesterday, Mr. Mastroianni said. “We need to check with our law department. I don't know where their responsibility begins and ends and our responsibility begins and ends.”

Mr. Mastroianni said Mayor Ford convened a meeting of the Lucas County emergency directors on the top floor of Government Center late Thursday afternoon and again Friday morning. He said the mayor put Fire Chief Michael Bell in charge of the emergency response.

He said Mr. Ford made personal calls twice to James Murray, president of the Toledo Edison Co., to ask how the utility planned to respond.

Mr. Murray “told the mayor he would get back to him. He got back to him and said they were calling work crews from southern Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania,” Mr. Mastroianni said.

“They did what they had to do, which was call in people. They clearly demonstrated to the mayor that they were doing what they possibly could,” Mr. Mastroianni said.

He said the mayor visited city workers on the job to thank them.

Two city directors said reimbursement is called for.

Robert Reinbolt, public service director, said sewer and street repair work crews and firefighters were guarding 80 downed power lines at the height of the storm.

“I believe Edison has some responsibility to watch those lines. If it is a downed power line, I don't think the city should have to have people there to watch it,” Mr. Reinbolt said.

Chief Bell said reimbursement should be considered. He also suggested that Toledo Edison form a volunteer corps that would respond in emergencies with flares and cones to protect dangerous power lines.

Chuck Krueger, area manager for Toledo Edison, said the storm was more severe than anybody now working for the utility can recall.

“All I know is the city has never asked us to pay for that type of public service before,” Mr. Krueger said. “If they were watching 80 downed lines, it most likely was at a time when there were 3,000 lines down in the city of Toledo alone.”

Mr. Gerken said he thinks Toledo Edison has reduced its ranks since merging in 1997 with an Akron company. The new company, FirstEnergy Corp., has its corporate office in Akron.

As part of the merger, Toledo Edison agreed not to cut staffing more than 20 percent lower than the level in place in November, 1997 - 399 employees. The company kept its promise, with 322 employees as of December, said Kerry Bruce, an attorney for the city utilities department.

However, the agreement did not prevent Toledo Edison from reducing its ranks at service sites in Holland and Lake Township.

Toledo Edison did not immediately respond to requests for staffing levels outside Toledo.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio yesterday acknowledged it has received a number of formal complaints from Toledo-area residents with regard to Toledo Edison's response after the ice storm.

But regulators have heard nothing yet that convinces them of a need to investigate the utility for the way it handled the prolonged outage, PUCO spokesman Matt Butler, said.

Blade staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.



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